Nature, culture and history
Less than a month after the ex-HMAS Brisbane was scuttled to serve as the nation's newest world-class dive experience, marine life had moved in. Visibility is generally between 12–15m.
The sunken vessel contributes to the enhancement of the marine fisheries habitat. The ex-HMAS Brisbane now functions as an entirely new place to live, creating niches for countless animals. In addition to harbouring numerous species of fish, it serves as a hunting ground for swift open-ocean pelagic fish species, such as mackerel, tuna and jacks.
These species use the wreck as a place to feed, to help with navigation and as an area to rest where the structure weakens or deflects currents. Marine life can also use the wreck as a place to hide from predators.
The wreck has become an oasis for marine life and offer ideal conditions for divers and snorkellers to explore the ocean and its abundant marine life.
Within a year, the scuttled ship was completely covered with plants and sessile (permanently attached) invertebrates, attracting mobile invertebrates and fish species and forming a highly complex food chain. Coral growth and marine life are flourishing on the ship's structures.
The coral colonies provide the framework around and within the wreck, where all sorts of reef animals, such as fish, sponges, worms, starfish and molluscs live. Over thousands of years, coral growth, death and cementing will help build the reef many metres thick, with a veneer of living corals and a myriad of associated plants and animals.
There is prolific growth of embryonic corals over most of the structure and subtropical fish are abundant. Commonly seen are schools of whiting, happy moments, varied pelagic fish, yellowtail kingfish and cuttlefish cruising the decks.
For those fascinated by smaller creatures, the wreck has a wonderful array of invertebrate species. Shrimps, crabs, octopus, cuttlefish, molluscs, sea stars, feather stars, crayfish and colourful nudibranchs are regularly seen.
A study of the ex-HMAS Brisbane artificial dive site commissioned by the (then) Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing (NPSR) confirms the high diversity of marine life that has colonised the wreck since scuttling in July 2005.
The research was conducted by scientists from the University of the Sunshine Coast and Queensland Museum and shows conclusively that the wreck of the ex-HMAS Brisbane is fast becoming a well colonised and visited artificial reef.
Sink the Brisbane project overview
In January 2003, the Queensland Government agreed to accept the decommissioned HMAS Brisbane from the Commonwealth Government for sinking off the Sunshine Coast as an artificial reef and dive site.
The ship is a 133m, Charles F Adams Class DDG, Guided Missile Destroyer. It was commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) on 16 December 1967 and was decommissioned in October 2001.
The 'Sink the Brisbane' artificial reef project presented significant tourism, economic and industry development opportunities for the Sunshine Coast and the State of Queensland. Tourism Sunshine Coast expected the project to create up to 200 jobs in the region. The department is the lead agency responsible for the 'Sink the Brisbane' project.
Recreational opportunities for scuba divers have been greatly enhanced by sinking the ship off the Sunshine Coast as an artificial reef. The department's goal in managing the ex-HMAS Brisbane artificial reef is to maintain the reef for dive tourism purposes.
The HMAS Brisbane is the fourth former warship to be scuttled as a dive site, following HMAS Swan and HMAS Perth in Western Australia and HMAS Hobart in South Australia.
HMAS Brisbane, nicknamed 'The Steel Cat' was constructed by the Defoe Shipbuilding Company in the United States of America. The ship was launched on 5 May 1966. The HMAS Brisbane was the second vessel of that name to serve in the Royal Australian Navy.
The HMAS Brisbane was the third Charles F Adams class destroyer bought by the Royal Australian Navy, the others being HMAS Hobart and HMAS Perth. The three vessels formed the first Australian Destroyer squadron, based at the Garden Island dockyard in Sydney.
Length: 133.19 metres
Beam: 14.3 metres
Draught: 6.1 metres
Displacement: 3370 tonne (standard); 4500 tonne (full load)
Top speed: 35 knots
Range: 4500 nautical miles at 15 knots
2000 nautical miles at 30 knots
2 x GE steam turbines driving two shafts producing 70,000 shaft horsepower
2 x 5 inch Mk42 Mod 10 automatic rapid fire guns
Standard anti-air missile system
Harpoon anti-ship missile system
2 x 20 mm Vulcan Phalanx Mk15 Close in weapons systems
4 x 0.50 inch calibre machine guns
2 x triple mounted anti-submarine torpedo tubes firing Mk48 torpedoes
HMAS Brisbane's crew of 332 included 20 officers and 312 sailors. Her final captain, Commodore Campbell Darby, commanded the ship from December 1999 until it was decommissioned at the end of 2001. Four former HMAS Brisbane officers were promoted to the rank of Admiral or Rear Admiral, a unique feat for any ship in the Royal Australian Navy, reflecting the ship's motto 'We aim at higher things'.
Service—the Vietnam War
HMAS Brisbane undertook two tours of duty in Vietnam, the first from 20 March to 13 October 1969, and the second from 16 March to 11 October 1971. During her two tours of duty in Vietnam, HMAS Brisbane served as part of the United States Seventh Fleet, mainly providing fire support to the allied land forces along the South Vietnam coast.
Service—the First Gulf War
HMAS Brisbane was one of four Australian warships to serve in the first Gulf War, operating in the Persian Gulf between 20 November 1990 and 26 March 1991. The ship spent much of this time as part of Battle Force Zulu, the force of United States Navy aircraft carriers and their escort vessels that formed part of the anti-aircraft screen for the US Navy carrier battle groups.
Did you know?
- The mascot of HMAS Brisbane was the black panther.
- Following the devastation of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in December 1974, a fleet of Royal Australian Navy ships set sail to Darwin in Operation Navy Help Darwin. The HMAS Brisbane was the first to arrive on 31 December 1974. The sailors undertook a wide range of duties including raising and righting vessels, supplying on-shore power, repairing buildings and removing rubbish. The Mayor of Darwin paid tribute to the operation saying, 'We owe the Navy the greatest debt of all'.
- HMAS Brisbane took part in the Silver Jubilee Naval Review held at Spithead in the United Kingdom in June 1977.
- The gun turret is installed in the northern courtyard of the Australian War Memorial.
Site preparation and scuttling
Careful planning goes into scuttling a ship, to prevent any harm to the environment. A key goal in sinking a ship as a dive wreck is to provide suitable material for marine organisms to colonise.
Preparation of the ship involved removing contaminants such as:
- heavy metals (lead, mercury)
- batteries, fuels, oils and grease from the engine, fuel lines and other parts of the ship
- insulation, plastics and wooden items that may break free during the sinking.
Contaminants were taken to an oil recycling company or qualified hazardous waste contractor, as needed. Materials recycled include furniture, machinery and parts, hatches, gauges and bulk materials such as lead, copper, steel and brass.
Brisbane company, Forgacs, undertook the huge task of cleaning and preparing the ship for scuttling—to prevent environmental pollution and make it a safe dive site.
Before leaving Sydney, the ship was prepared to ensure it was safe for its journey to Brisbane. This included an environmental audit, as well as a seaworthiness check.
Preparing the ex-HMAS Brisbane for scuttling required consideration of diver safety issues, preserving the integrity of the vessel and conserving the surrounding ecosystem.
In preparing the ship:
- Large openings were made in the ship's exterior to allow light to penetrate. This also allowed air to escape during scuttling.
- Some entrances were sealed to restrict access for safety reasons.
- Openings were widened to provide safe access for divers.
A permit was obtained from the Commonwealth Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981, to ensure the sunken ship would not harm the environment.
Approvals were obtained from the (then) Queensland Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing (NPSR) under the Coastal Protection and Management Act 1995 and within the Integrated Development Assessment System under the Integrated Planning Act 1997.
Transportation approvals were secured to tow the vessel to the scuttling site.
A survey was undertaken to identify the marine species that inhabit the area and ensure the site would not threaten existing habitats for marine life. The site was chosen, among other reasons, for its lack of immobile seabed communities. Although fish and marine mammals may be found in the area, they are usually travelling through.
Site survey results showed:
- The area supports many invertebrates such as prawns and crabs, along with a high diversity and medium abundance of fish species.
- Migrating turtles (loggerheads, green and flatback) are often sighted in the area, but there are no known rookeries on the Sunshine Coast. The deep sandy habitat is unlikely to be preferred by these turtles.
- Humpbacks are the most common species of whale in the region.
- Dugongs typically inhabit much shallower waters where seagrass beds are found.
- Two species of bottlenose dolphin are regularly sighted along the coastline.
The site for the Ex-HMAS Brisbane Conservation Park was selected on the basis that it satisfied the following criteria. The site:
- is devoid of sensitive marine habitats and has minimal impact on the local coastline
- is able to attract fish and increase local biodiversity
- has geological characteristics suitable for the ship to settle with no impact on local reefs and other geological features
- is at an appropriate depth of water
- will not impact on shipping lanes or navigational areas
- will not be dangerous for scuba diving and has good visibility
- will not impact on other legitimate uses that may operate in the area
- has suitable currents.
Controlled scuttling of the ex-HMAS Brisbane involved:
- refilling the fuel tanks with water, after they had been thoroughly cleaned
- pouring 200–250t of concrete into the hull to balance the vessel and provide enough weight for sinking
- placing approximately 38 charges in specific locations on the ship
- filling of the ship with water following detonation of charges.
The ship settled on the sea floor, embedded more than one metre into the seabed in an upright position facing the ocean currents.
Effects of the detonation sequence were set below the threshold for marine mammals and fish to ensure their protection. Detonation experts worked closely with the department and Fisheries Queensland to protect marine life and ensure such fauna were not at the site during the scuttling.
A spotter plane was used on the morning of the sinking to circle the designated area and watch for whales and dolphins. Explosive charges were not detonated until the all clear was given from the spotter plane. Seal scares or thunder flashes were not used, as they were more likely to attract the attention of these mammals rather than deter them.
Roy Gabriel—international scuttling expert
Roy Gabriel, from the Canadian Artificial Reef Consulting Team, was in charge of scuttling the ex-HMAS Brisbane. Roy and his team are world authorities on preparing and sinking large ships for diving purposes. They have worked on projects around the world, mainly in Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia.
Roy's role in sinking the ex-HMAS Brisbane involved controlling all aspects of the scuttling process including:
- working out where charges are laid
- determining explosives to be used
- deciding where vent holes were cut
- making up and laying out charges
- priming the ship
Vessels were on standby to retrieve debris following scuttling. Highly experienced divers inspected the ship within a couple of hours of scuttling to ensure that all charges were detonated and that there was no internal damage to the ship from the sinking.
Wreck to reef…one year on
The ex-HMAS Brisbane project has been remarkable from beginning to end—from procurement, to preparation and then the sinking.
In 2006, one year after the sinking of the ex-HMAS Brisbane, the department celebrated the first year anniversary by releasing a comprehensive booklet detailing the transition from decommissioned warship to artificial reef.
The ship, although no longer in service, will remain a significant icon of Australian waters and its proud history is complemented by its establishment as an artificial reef off the Sunshine Coast.